I just read a really disturbing article in this month's Campaigns and Elections magazine, entitled "The Neglected Threat." Oh dear lord; if you are not scared about the precarious nature of our democratic elections, then you have not been paying attention. Forget the big brouhahas over the evils of electronic poll machines, poor ballot design, push polling suppressing turnout or broken machines. "The single greatest threat to the 2006 elections probably is human error on the part of the nation's more than 1.5 million poll workers..."
Poorly trained poll workers and bad polling site management have historically accounted for the most egregious cases of "lost" votes in elections. The article details a few, including the loss of more than 4,400 ballots in Carteret County, NC when poll workers didn't notice the machine's blinking "capacity reached" light, and kept on sending voters to that booth. It gets worse, but my acid reflux can't take recounting the other stories here.
The average age of poll workers in 2004 was 72 years old. Working required shifts, in some cases, of 16 hours. Making (depending on the region) between $75 and $200 TOTAL. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 allocated some money to the Election Assistance Commission to recruit college students as volunteers to help fill the 2 million poll worker slots needed for a federal election. Want to guess what has happened now that the press attention has been diverted? Yup. The budget was cut from $600,000 to $250,000. Good luck with that.
And increased training? Guess who is handling that, in the absence of federal financial assistance? Yup. Diebold, along with other voting machine manufacturers. What could POSSIBLY go wrong with allowing a corporation to train people to run a free and fair and democratic election?!
So what we have, as usual, is media attention on all the big, sexy superficial things like high-tech machines and Katherine Harris' makeup, when the real attention should be paid to the more internal and less-sexy stuff like actually keeping the bones of our democracy strong. Because after all, this is a government for, by and of the people, and if we can't find and value people to help manage its biannual physicals, then no amount of plastic surgery (bigger machines! shiny ballots!) will save it in the end.